How to Say Sorry: Teaching Children to Apologize

Posted January 23, 2017 by

How to Say Sorry: Teaching Children to Apologize

A friend’s three-year-old son is still developing his ability to regulate his emotions. He can go from being ecstatic, to devastated, to furious, in the span of a few minutes.

During one pre-dinner meltdown last week, he started yelling and kicking his toys around the room. After he calmed down, his mom asked him to clean up the mess he made.

“Sorry, Mama,” he said as he cleaned up.

The child admitted he was wrong by apologizing, but will an apology prevent the situation from happening again? What does a parent do when “I’m sorry” isn’t enough?

Parents often ask Empowering Parents Coaches how to handle it when their child’s outbursts or behaviors cause real damage—either physical or emotional. In these situations, a simple apology isn’t enough for the child to make amends.

Cleaning up a messy room is one thing, but as kids grow up, the “messes” they make can grow with them. In order to develop effective problem-solving skills for adulthood, kids need to take an extra step and explain what they’ll do differently next time.

Here are three ways you can teach your child how to apologize, learn accountability and develop problem-solving skills.

  1. Watch out for, “I’m Sorry But…”  Kids (and adults!) can use an apology as a way to justify their behavior or place blame on someone else. Take a look at these examples:

    “I’m sorry, but you made me angry!”

    “I’m sorry, but he started it!”

    If your child falls into this habit, do not accept the apology. It’s great that they are remorseful for their behavior, but that is just the first step.

    Instead of saying, “I’m sorry, but…”

    A more effective statement is, “It was wrong to… Next time…”

    Here’s what that sounds like:

    “It was wrong to call you names. Next time I’ll walk away and take some space to get my emotions under control.”

    It takes practice to change the “I’m Sorry But…” habit in children. To start, you can point out when it happens and require an “It was wrong to… Next time…” statement as part of a conversation around consequences, which should follow your child’s acting out behavior.

    An effective consequence holds your child accountable and has him/her practice and demonstrate the skills they need to make a better decision next time.

  2. Add an Amends as Part of the Consequence.  Making amends simply means righting the wrong. If your son gets in trouble for his rude statements to a teacher, you can require that he write a letter of apology explaining how he’ll act differently in the future, in addition to the consequence he receives at school.

    If your daughter’s risky behavior results in damage to your car, you can restrict her driving privileges for a specific length of time and require her to do some work to pay for the damages.

  3. Give It Time. Children can do things that really hurt and disappoint us—it’s okay to feel sad or frustrated when this happens. Kids are not very patient with the discomfort that can come from seeing you upset. You’ll find them saying things like, “I said I was sorry…what else do you want?!”

    Give yourself some time. Once you give a consequence and require your child to make amends, you’ve done your part to address the situation. Find someone to talk to who can give you the support you need. Remember that the most powerful lessons come to us when things feel challenging.

For more on this topic, check out: Kids and Excuses: Why Children Justify Their Behavior.

Our Parenting Coaches are also here to help you develop a plan for disrespect, back talk, holding your child accountable and more. Click here to start talking with a parent coaching professional today.

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  1. Charlie Report

    As most children and adults also, children want to their parents to know that they are sorry. However; they also feel like they need to justify themselves and their actions. If we allow our children to do so, then we are promoting them to allow their wrong doings to be accepted and okay, due to their justification. As a parent, I myself catch myself into falling in this habit when disciplining my child, such as; “baby, mommy is sorry, but….”. I will now have to catch myself. In the classroom, I hear the “but” a lot also. Again, it is always to justify their wrong actions.

    Reply
  2. dlkh223 Report

    The ….,but habit is a behavior we involuntarily teach our children.
    My 11 y/o son recently pointed out how much he hates my ..,but … statements.
    They don’t seem to hear anything positive mentioned before and just hear the but.. part.
    So as a parent who wants to be loving and educating, don’t use a statement like: I love you so much, but please don’t do this…… All they get out of it is the negative but part.
    So I learned to try to word things differently, or at least I’m trying. Keep positive positive, negative separate.
    As I read this I realized where that but part comes from and how wise a child can be pointing that out.

    Reply
  3. kriss Report

    I agree that you did not answer the question originally, but I am glad that you responded back with some ideas.  I am not sure that leaving the child at home alone is a good answer since there will be work to make up and that will be a whole other problem. Requesting the child comply to rules (getting dressed for school; sitting down at the kitchen table when called for a meal; getting ready for extra-curricular activities; going to bed when it is time) are all occasions when these power struggles occur.  I’m not even sure these are rules, rather they are simply things we have to do to get through a day. So how do you not get pulled into the tug of war with every situation? One non-compliant child can throw off an entire family’s schedule.  What other suggestions do you have other than holding them accountable by not allowing privileges for a day.  Since the tug of war happens multiple times throughout the day – I can’t take away that many privileges – it’d be the equivalent of grounding them for a day when all is said and done, and somehow I don’t think that’s what you are getting at.

    Reply
    • dbeaulieu Report

      @kriss 

      You are right, taking away
      privileges for everything that comes up in the day is not effective. Consequences
      don’t change behaviors, so taking something away is not going to make the
      situation improve. What we recommend is to focus on one or two behaviors at a
      time. Morning routine can be one area to address. What you can do is clearly
      establish what is expected in the morning. Discuss with your child how they are
      going to get their things done and get out the door on time. Do they need a
      check off list, or do they need to get everything laid out and organized the
      night before. When they are successful with getting ready on time, they can
      earn a daily privilege or an additional daily reward. When they are not
      successful, it is very important to stay out of a power struggle. Reminding
      them constantly about what they should be doing, or getting into an argument
      about what they are not doing, only makes the situation worse. Because there is
      no way to make your child get ready or get in the car, you may have to leave an
      older child at home if you have to get other children to school or you have to
      get to work. If they have make up work, that is their problem to solve. That is
      a natural consequence for the choice they made. I hope this helps to clear up
      the questions you had. Thank you for writing in.

      Reply
  4. dbeaulieu Report

    suzanneh50 

    We get that question a lot, it
    is a struggle for many families. The truth is, there is no way to make your
    child comply. The key is to avoid power struggles in an attempt to make them
    listen. It is not an immediate or quick fix for most. It is about consistently
    not getting pulled into a tug of war every morning when your child is resisting
    the rules. Let your child know they need to be ready and in the car in 10
    minutes because that is when you are leaving. If your child is old enough to
    leave at home, go to work and let the school know it is an unexcused absence.
    If your child is too young to leave, have a back up plan. Have a neighbor or
    family member on standby, if possible. Then hold your child accountable by not
    allowing privileges for the day. I hope this is helpful for your situation.
    Thank you for writing in.

    Reply
  5. suzanneh50 Report

    You did not answer the question for mom to make it to work on time.  My grandkids are notorious for this, and mom has lost 2 jobs because of it.

    Reply

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